My favourite place: Bethlehem

In the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine, Jacob Norris selects Bethlehem as his favourite place. History Extra caught up with him to find out more...



When did you last travel there and why were you there?

Just last month! I go regularly for research but also to catch up with good friends and reconnect with a city that continues to captivate me.

Why do you love the location?

I love its intriguing mix of religions and cultures. Despite its small size Bethlehem is really a very worldly city. I also love the surrounding countryside: steep, majestic hillsides covered in a sea of olive and fig trees. Looking east from Bethlehem the hills give way to the lunar-like Judean Desert and eventually the Dead Sea. The contrast is stunning.

What top 3 sights would you recommend people visit there, and why?

The Church of the Nativity is remarkably atmospheric, but equally rewarding is a stroll around the surrounding streets, ending up back in Manger Square for a cup of mint tea, looking out onto one of the world’s great plazas. I would also recommend visiting the stunning monasteries and villages that surround Bethlehem. Two of these stand out for me. Firstly Mar Saba, a 5th-century monastery carved into a dramatic ravine and still inhabited by a community of Greek Orthodox monks. Secondly the village of Battir, sitting in a wonderfully green and tranquil valley fed by natural springs and lined by stone terraces where the village’s famous aubergines grow.

During what period of its history would you most wanted to have visited this location and why?

The obvious thing to say here would be the birth of Christ, but there probably wasn’t much happening more generally in Bethlehem at that time. For me it would be the late 19th century – a period when Bethlehem suddenly went global as merchants from the town travelled the world, bringing back all sorts of new ideas and influences.

Where else in the world would you most like to visit and why?

I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively in the Middle East but I’ve never made it to Iraq, for obvious reasons. Despite the recent damage, Baghdad and nearby sites like Samarra and Babylon contain some of the most important sites of the ancient world and in Shi’a Islam. I’d also love to visit the exquisite mosques and mausoleums of Samarkand, located on the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan.

Jacob Norris is a lecturer in Middle Eastern history at the University of Sussex and is currently writing a book about Bethlehem


You can read more about Jacob’s experiences in Bethlehem in the Christmas 2016 edition of BBC History Magazine, on sale from 1 December.